Call The Midwife writer says NHS gives ‘gift beyond price’ to ordinary people

Call The Midwife screenwriter Heidi Thomas said the NHS is a “gift beyond price” which gives ordinary people “dignity, equality and respect”.

Thomas said the creation of the NHS 75 years ago, on July 5 1948, meant for the first time that everyone’s health was valued equally by society.

And without its role in preventing illness, Thomas said she might have died from tuberculosis (TB) as a child, like many of her ancestors.

“The first series of Call The Midwife was set in 1957 – nine years after the inception of the NHS. Since then, we have been able to show vaccination becoming the norm, mass X-rays helping stamp out TB, and every single woman receiving wraparound care during pregnancy and childbirth,” she told the PA news agency.

Showcase gala for BBC Worldwide
Heidi Thomas with Call The Midwife stars Jenny Agutter (Sister Julienne), Laura Main (Shelagh Turner) and her husband Stephen McGann (Dr Patrick Turner) (Peter Byrne/PA)

“Medical advances such as antibiotics may well have happened anyway, but the incalculable benefit of the NHS meant that systems existed to deliver cure, care and prevention right across the board.

“No-one was an island any more, and time and time again we have shown people accessing treatment they didn’t realise that they could have.”

Thomas, who also wrote the 2022 film Allelujah based on Alan Bennett’s play of the same name about a geriatric ward in a hospital in West Yorkshire, said: “Above all else, the NHS gave ordinary people dignity, equality and respect.

“For the first time in history, society valued the health of people on the dole as much as it valued that of millionaires.

“Suddenly, we were all entitled to be well, free from pain, and to plan for a long and productive life.

Call The Midwife tour
Laura Main and Jenny Agutter talk to tour guides dressed as midwives at the Call The Midwife Official Location Tour at the Historic Dockyard Chatham in Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“It seems extraordinary, but this was a new idea just 75 years ago – before the NHS, working class people expected nothing and got less.

“Afterwards, they were respected, and they were empowered. It was a gift beyond price, and worth every penny.”

Call The Midwife was originally created by Thomas from the memoirs of Jennifer Worth who worked as a district nurse and midwife, attached to a convent, in the East End of London during the 1950s.

The popular BBC period drama, centred around the nuns and midwives at Nonnatus House, is now in production for its 13th series, set in 1969, which will be broadcast in 2024.

“I find myself incredibly moved by the extent to which illness in children was not only being treated, but prevented,” Thomas said of her research for the show.

“Children were now being born into a system that was going to care for them until they died – they weren’t just given medicine when they were ill, they were given vaccinations, free dental care, and free milk and orange juice. Nutrition was seen as vital, and the NHS was building children from the ground up – its work was literally written into their bones.”

BFI and Radio Times Television Festival
Heidi Thomas with cast members Helen George (Trixie Aylward), Jennifer Kirby (Valerie Dyer) and Leonie Elliott (Lucille Anderson) during the BFI and Radio Times Television Festival in 2019 (Isabel Infantes/PA)

Thomas, who was born and raised in Liverpool, said she may not have survived to adulthood without access to vaccinations.

“Tuberculosis historically ran through my family like an inherited curse, killing people in every generation, but by the 1960s we were no longer dying of it, thanks to the National Health Service,” she said.

“Due to the vigilance of a district nurse, at the age of two I was found to have no natural immunity to TB at all, and was vaccinated as a matter of urgency.

“Without this, I could have been dead before I was 10, like so many of my forebears.

“And diseases like TB, diphtheria and measles would have continued to rip through less advantaged communities decade after decade after decade – breaking up families, intensifying poverty and killing hope.”

The Writers Guild Awards 2019 – London
Heidi Thomas also wrote the 2022 film Allelujah based on Alan Bennett’s play of the same name (Ian West/PA)

She described free dental care as “an absolute game changer”, adding “dental decay led to chronic, agonising pain, disfigurement and long-term nutritional compromise.”

“Education and treatment went hand in hand to change the situation for so many people.”

Thomas’s own grandfather was one of the healers who offered help to those who could not afford a doctor in the days before the NHS.

“Healthcare was a terrible, risky patchwork of things – home remedies, charitable institutions and amateur quacks,” she said.

“My own grandfather was a self-taught herbalist and bonesetter, and working people went to him because he was cheaper than a trained doctor.

“He was also less skilled, and less likely to save your life if you were dying – there really is only so much you can do with peppermint tea and mustard plasters.

“There were some religious orders, like the Sisters of St Raymond Nonnatus, who provided nursing care and midwifery, but they were not publicly funded and there was no guarantee of such a set-up in any given locality.

“Too much came down to luck, and there were too many tragedies.”